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Philanthropy and the City

Philanthropy and the City buildings

If federal Washington’s stew of partisanship and paralysis makes you worry about the country’s future, look instead to the American city.

Scholars and journalists are unearthing scenes of renewal in big cities and small towns across the country, where public- and private-sector leaders are coming together to tackle social problems, rev up economies, and create community.

In these places, political muscle and ideology matter less than the ability to get things done. “Power increasingly belongs to the problem solvers,” write urban experts Bruce Katz and the late Jeremy Nowak in their recent book The New Localism.

Notable among the problem solvers is philanthropy. Katz and others increasingly point to grant makers and nonprofits as key to municipal reinvention.

Grant-making giants Rockefeller and Bloomberg are pursuing change in the city at perhaps the broadest scale: Each is creating national networks in which leaders try to make their cities more resilient (in the case of Rockefeller) or more data savvy (Bloomberg). But it’s not just the big players in philanthropy that are having an impact. Local foundations and nonprofits in hundreds of communities are bankrolling and directing change, too, with little of the same attention. Though their work is generally perceived as benefiting the common good, it’s an extension of philanthropy’s power that some people find unsettling, and undemocratic.

In this issue, we look at three cities where philanthropy is integral to progress: Chattanooga, Tenn., where small family foundations are funding and helping direct an economic revitalization; Denver, where an unusually influential nonprofit community is driving change; and Columbus, Ohio, where corporate philanthropy is a dominant power.

We also look at Tulsa, Okla., named “best city for philanthropy” by our readers in a social-media contest.

A version of this article appeared in the Dec. 4, 2018 issue.